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Following the 2019 season, the SEC was looking to replace two top-5 NFL draft picks: Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Then, with the losses of Jake Fromm and running quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., many were left wondering how the conference would look at the position in 2020.
The answer: really good.
After fully taking over for Tagovailoa at Alabama, Mac Jones worked his way into being a first-round pick, and Florida’s Kyle Trask continued to develop into one of the country’s top passers. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond had an efficient season that helped him become a Day 2 pick in April.
All three of those guys are now gone, and so are Feleipe Franks, Collin Hill and Terry Wilson.
So once again, we’re left wondering how the quarterback spot looks in the SEC heading into the 2021 season. There are some impressive starters returning, but there are also a lot of unknowns about some of the replacements for the guys listed above. Still, the conference should field plenty of talent at the position.
Below are my quarterback rankings for all 14 SEC teams. If a competition is still too close to call, I list both options. But I speculated on a few of the looming battles, including at Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn.
14. Luke Doty, South Carolina
Luke Doty was the clear-cut choice to land at No. 14 on this list. That might sound like a shot at the South Carolina quarterback, but it’s not meant to be. I just believe that the conference has a lot of potential at the position right now, and there are a couple things working against Doty.
First, we haven’t seen him much. He attempted only 71 passes last year, completing just 60.6 percent of them, which averages a mere 5.7 yards per attempt. Those numbers don’t inspire much confidence, and the talent around him is nothing to write home about, especially after the departure of Shi Smith.
Still, this is a former four-star, top-100 player coming out of high school. So I won’t count him out yet. New head coach Shane Beamer and company still have plenty to work with.
13. Beau Allen/Joey Gatewood, Kentucky
Terry Wilson is now gone, which means the quarterback battle is going to come down to Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood. The two have only 50 career passing attempts between them, which doesn’t much help us determine who the victor will be.
After he transferred from Auburn, many thought Gatewood would start over Wilson last season. But it took awhile to get his eligibility status back, and Wilson’s significant experience prevailed. At 6-5, 221 pounds, Wilson is a big-bodied quarterback with some much-needed rushing ability, but does Kentucky want to continue the Wilson approach?
Allen — or Gatewood, I suppose — could make a move up these rankings over the course of the season. Why? Surrounding talent should help. The offensive line should be one of the best in all of college football, Chris Rodriguez is one the best running backs in the country, and adding Wan’Dale Robinson with Josh Ali gives Kentucky a nice duo at wide receiver.
Penn State transfer Will Levis will also be involved in the battle.
12. Harrison Bailey/Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
Tennessee took forever to unleash freshman Harrison Bailey in 2020. Though he was a top-100 prospect in a QB room that lacked talent, the Marietta, GA native played in only six games with three starts. But the results weren’t bad.
He completed over 70 percent of his 68 pass attempts for 578 yards with four touchdowns and only two interceptions. Did he look like a freshman at times? Sure, but the potential is there. At 6-foot-5 and 220 lbs, Bailey has the size, and he has reportedly worked hard during the offseason.
He’ll have to beat out at least one transfer Hendon Hooker — and maybe another, Joe Milton — for the starting job. But there’s a lot to like here, especially in Josh Heupel’s offense.
11. Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
Look, I’m a huge fan of Ken Seals. If he had more talent around him, I believe he’d be a lot higher on this list. In nine games as a true freshman, the Texas native threw for only 1,928 yards. In fact, all of his statistics look pretty pedestrian. But if you actually watch him, there’s a lot to like.
He was only the third true freshman to start at quarterback in a season opener for an SEC team since 1972. Considering where we all thought Vanderbilt would be at that spot heading into 2020, Seal’s success is quite an accomplishment.
He does need to cut down on the turnovers though.
Normally, I’m not a fan of bailing on your team, but at some point, I don’t think I could blame Seals if he elected to utilize that one-time transfer rule and surround himself with a better situation. I doubt that actually happens, but it’s just unfortunate he doesn’t have more talent around him.
Can we get Jared Pinkney, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Kalija Lipscomb back in Nashville, please?
10. KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
There are a couple of speculative rankings on this list, and KJ Jefferson is one of them. He has only 41 career pass attempts, and 33 of them came in his lone career start against Missouri last season. In that game, he totaled 306 yards (274 passing, 32 rushing) and four scores in a 50-48 loss.
What we’re hoping is that wasn’t an unsustainable, Jeremy Johnson-type of performance. If Jefferson can build off of that, he should easily be a top-10 quarterback in the SEC. At 6-3, 240, he’s a big, powerful runner who can punish defenders if need be.
Even with wide receiver Mike Woods transferring to Oklahoma, Jefferson will still have arguably the top pass-catcher in the SEC, Treylon Burks, to throw to. In nine games last season, Burks hauled in 51 catches for 820 yards and seven touchdowns. In Jefferson’s one start, he had 10 grabs for 206 yards and a score.
9. Bo Nix, Auburn
Auburn now has TJ Finley on the roster to compete with Bo Nix, but I think the former five-star will win out before it’s all said and done. With that said, having Finley in the mix should push Nix to improve after two subpar seasons on The Plains — competition breeds improvement, after all.
With Nix, it’s all about consistency — or lack thereof. Against Alabama in the 2019 Iron Bowl, we saw some spectacular plays. Yet the 2020 game against Arkansas — with that atrocious spike against Arkansas that should’ve been ruled a fumble — shows how bad he can be.
If Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo can fix his mechanical issues, there’s still hope. And with Finley there, the coaching staff can finally be comfortable allowing Nix to utilize one of his biggest strengths — his legs — more often. We’ll see what happens without Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz.
8. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Connor Bazelak is a pretty damn good quarterback, but he’s not among the conference’s elite. Can he get there? Sure, but at the very least, he’s always going to be a rock solid signal caller, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In 10 games last season, the redshirt freshman completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,366 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Plus he had two rushing scores. That touchdown-to-interception ratio may be unimpressive, but watching the tape tells a different story.
I worry about the talent around him though. Getting Tyler Badie back is nice, but Larry Rountree III (972 yards, 14 touchdowns in 2020) was an excellent complementary option to take pressure off Bazelak. With him and starting right tackle Larry Borom gone, let’s hope the offense doesn’t regress.
7. Emory Jones, Florida
Emory Jones is finally going to get the opportunity to be the starter in Gainesville. After handling spot reps over his first three seasons, we’ll now get to see what Dan Mullen can do with the former top-5 dual-threat quarterback.
So far, it feels like Jones has regressed, but that may just be how he was utilized. His 6.8 yards per carry (32 carries, 217 yards, two touchdowns) adequately reflects his effectiveness as a runner, but how he improves as a passer will determine everything.
The timing is unfortunate with Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes all gone, but the run game should drastically improve with Clemson transfer running back Demarkcus Bowman joining Dameion Piece, Malik Davis and Lorenzo Lingard in Florida’s backfield.
6. Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Everyone expected KJ Costello to rack up passing yards in Mike Leach’s first season in Starkville. After the Stanford transfer faltered, true freshman Will Rogers took over the starting job and performed admirably.
His 219.6 passing yards per game didn’t come close to leading the country like Leach’s previous two starters at Washington State, Anthony Gordon and Gardner Minshew. But this is the SEC, after all. He did complete 69.1 percent of his pass attempts, so the 5.7 yards per attempt points to safe play-calling.
As Leach begins to let the second-year quarterback loose, his numbers should increase. Statistically speaking, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him at or near the top of the conference in most categories, but the turnovers need to come down.
5. Haynes King/Zach Calzada, Texas A&M
Haynes King hasn’t beaten out Zach Calzada for the starting job in College Station, but a lot of people expect it to go that way. I’m going to wait and see how it turns out, but I like both of their potential in Jimbo Fisher’s offense.
King was one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2020. If he wins the job, that means Fisher should already be comfortable utilizing his legs in much the same way he did with Kellen Mond for multiple seasons.
The offensive line should be good, there’s talent at receiver, and the run game — with Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane and the versatile Anias Smith leading the way — should take a lot of pressure off whoever starts. Plus with Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Kupp, the quarterback will have one of the country’s best 1-2 punches at tight end.
4. Myles Brennan/Max Johnson, LSU
With Finley now off to Auburn, the quarterback competition in Baton Rouge is likely going to come down to either Myles Brennan or Max Johnson. With the way Johnson performed on the road against Florida as a true freshman, many expect him to win the job.
But in the wise words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”
People forget that in the three games Brennan started last year, he threw for 1,112 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. If he could’ve kept up that 370.7 passing yards per game mark — he probably wouldn’t have, but still — it would have led the nation by a wide margin.
Had it not been for a torn abdominal muscle, there likely wouldn’t be a competition happening right now. Was Brennan more effective in LSU’s offense compared to Johnson due to his experience, or was he just better? We’ll find out.
3. Bryce Young, Alabama
This is another speculative ranking, but everyone understands why. Bryce Young was the top-ranked quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class, and he’s now the starter at the University of Alabama. That combination should be lethal, right?
There’s still some growth — and I don’t mean physically, although that would also help — that needs to happen, but the mobility, playmaking ability and lightning quick release should help Young thrive in new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s offense.
Even with DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle gone, the California native will still have the most talented roster in the country at his disposal. I ranked Mac Jones in this same spot last year because everyone understood how well he’d do if he could hang onto the starting job. Now it’s Young’s turn.
2. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
It’s wild to think about where we were a year ago. And no, I’m not talking about with COVID-19. I’m talking about with the Ole Miss quarterback competition. Matt Corral was always the better fit for Lane Kiffin’s offense, and yet many — including myself — were predicting John Rhys Plumlee to be the starter.
Corral ended up being the starter and was extremely effective for the Rebels. Sure, his turnovers were completely out of control at times, but that’s due to his and Kiffin’s “let it rip” mentality. It will be hard to cut those out completely, but cutting them down to a more manageable number is possible.
Last season, Corral was one of only two quarterbacks to complete over 70 percent of his passes. The other was Mac Jones (77.4 percent). In only 10 games, he threw almost 30 touchdowns and led SEC quarterbacks in rushing yards (506) and rushing touchdowns (4).
The Corral-Kiffin marriage should continue to flourish.
1. JT Daniels, Georgia
With the way JT Daniels performed in his four starts last season, a lot of Georgia fans were left wondering what took Kirby Smart so long to insert him into the lineup. Regardless of the reason, we saw a star in the making with the USC transfer.
Daniels averaged 307.8 passing yards per game to go along with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His 67.2 completion percentage was impressive, and his 10.3 yards per attempt rank first among returning SEC quarterbacks. (Corral is second at 10.2.)
If you want to see the impact Daniels had on Georgia’s offense, just go watch how drastically different things looked with Stetson Bennett or D’Wan Mathis at the helm. There’s talent in Athens, and Daniels is fully ready to utilize it.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.